The Runaway Bus: Protection from Theft and Liability

Question: Can a bus simply run away? Answer: It sure can if its driver is as dumb as a post, and his knowledge of the bus as vacuous as a training manual with blank pages.

Late one Summer morning, a transit bus was cruising along a major boulevard when a fistfight broke out between two adult male passengers in the rear. Appropriately, the driver pulled over, opened both doors, and allowed the remaining passengers to alight, as did he – without turning off the engine, much less locking the ignition.

Several minutes later, when neither badly-battered combatant appeared near victory, both alighted and walked away in separate directions. Soon afterwards, the driver re-boarded. Unbeknownst to him and most passengers, one of them had remained seated in the rear during the entire bout – an unusual individual whose post-incident psychiatric examination found him calm, lucid and articulate. Completing (or perhaps comprising) his breakfast by smoking a “joint” dipped in Phencyclidine (PCP), this presumably-hallucinogenic passenger strolled forward, scaring the driver off the bus for the second time, who again failed to turn off the bus or lock its ignition. Plopping into the driver’s seat, the passenger did not likely understand the concept of the interlock. But he somehow figured out that the bus was not going anywhere with its rear door wide open. So, fumbling with the door-opening mechanism, he managed to close it. He then found the parking brake, released it, and began his joy ride. Before smashing to a stop against a rock wall, the bus wiped out seven cars (one of them flattened like a crushed tin can) and a myriad of poles, trees, hydrants and other objects. Two passengers sitting in one parked car were mutilated. Thus the inevitable lawsuit.

Easy Cases and Terrific Buses

As the plaintiff’s expert witness, my task was pretty simple: I merely needed to identify and demonstrate the various and sundry ways the bus could have been turned off and its re-starting prevented. The operating manual of the Gillig – one of my favorites for many reasons – could not have been more accommodating, providing method after method of shutting down the bus and locking its ignition, including a few I myself would never have thought of or known about. But here they were, clear as a bell, in a document the driver presumably spent much of his six-week training period examining, paragraph by paragraph and word by word. From the inside, the driver could have:

  • Set the parking brake (one of the two things the hijacker actually undid)
  • Turned the four-position master control dial to either of two positions
  • Engaged the fast idle switch
  • Kneeled the bus
  • Engaged the wheelchair (not deploy it, just engage it)
  • Opened the rear doors (the other maneuver the hijacker overcame)
  • Held down the starter button for more than 30 seconds (which would have stripped the motor)
  • Released air from the panel over the rear door
  • Released air from the panel over the front door
  • Pushed forward the “hill holder” switch
  • Raised the engine test switch (beneath a red “guard” on the dash panel)
  • Tripped the ignition circuit breaker (located in the driver’s overhead side panel)
  • Turned off the bus, and restarted it while pressing the accelerator pedal
  • Unlocked the knobs of the tilting/telescopic steering column
  • Flipped the engine cut-off switch in the overhead compartment above the driver’s window

From outside the bus, the driver could have:

  • Cut off the power by flipping down the battery cut-off switch (one of the few compartments I needed my “square tool” to open)
  • Turn off the engine “kill” switch (from an engine compartment requiring no key to open)
  • Switch the lever on the run box to “rear” (so that only mechanics could start and stop the engine)
  • Dump air from the wheelchair engagement switch located in an unlocked curb-side compartment
  • Dump air from the air intake valve in the unlocked engine compartment
  • Insert available tire chocks beneath either set of tires (although a formidable push on the accelerator would permit the bus to override them)
  • Dump the air from a release valve located in the window washer compartment above the front bumper (which was unfortunately inaccessible because the transit agency had mounted a bicycle rack on top of it)

Being a bit more brazen, I could have broken a few other things with a small hammer or slashed the tires. But this was far overboard from what my counsel desired as a demonstration – even though the driver-in-question was actually carrying a large fold-up knife that he brandished when approached by one of the combatants confronting him on the sidewalk (a violation identified for immediate termination among the agency’s policies). In fact, I was asked to perform only a small subset of these disablements (which were videotaped), lest we risk boring the jury. Of course, I knew most of these procedures even though I am not, nor ever was, a bus driver, and learned others unique to this particular vehicle simply by leafing through its Operator’s Manual. The driver-in-question had six weeks to study and memorize these same techniques, yet “employed” only the two least effective sheerly by coincidence.

Quick Settlements and Few Explanations

Not surprisingly, this lawsuit was settled favorably (for the plaintiffs) within weeks of my bus inspection, and long before opposing counsel even bothered to depose me. Intellectually, I was deeply disappointed, as I was hungry to learn what conceivable defense opposing counsel might have raised:

  • In the post-9-1-1 world, where half the planet’s terrorism occurs on buses, would the defendant have argued that this hijacking was not “reasonably foreseeable?
  • Was there some obscure clause in some policy document (e.g., leaving the bus running during winter months while the driver takes a restroom break at the end-of-the-line) to cite?
  • Was the driver (who dashed off the bus before most of the passengers) frightened?
  • Was the driver temporarily insane?

Perhaps a similar case in he future may provide me with some alibis.

Complex Scenarios and Future Concerns

Full-size transit buses and motorcoaches typically contain 260-amp alternators – even though a pair of 130-amp units is cheaper if room exists in the engine compartment to “package” them side-by-side. The driver of a motorcoach filled will several disabled passengers (requiring extensive use of the lift) who must enter a destination’s lobby to announce the coach’s arrival, begin the paperwork process and fetch a “greeter” to board the bus and start the passenger orientation/identification process (many casinos, for example, require passengers to wear badges to that they can ensure that they spend most of their time gambling) might be temped to leave the coach running, during the Summer months or otherwise (in selected southern states) to allow the A/C to operate without draining the battery. In such cases, the risks of a hijacking could be less than that of an elderly passenger suffering a stroke from sitting for too long on an overheated bus. So motorcoach drivers cannot simply dismiss the incident above as an aberration of the transit sector about which we need not concern ourselves. Nevertheless, there are solutions to the dilemmas that could arise. (For example, assigning the lift and A/C powering to a single alternator eliminates the risk of battery failure, as the litany of remaining components would almost never exceed the loads that the second alternator would then accommodate.)

Living in space-conscious Manhattan, I am unable to indulge myself in endless bookshelves, and in two coast-to-coast moves during my career, donated or disposed of hundreds of books, many of wish I cherished, largely because the chances of my ever rereading any of the them were rare. The same is not true of bus and coach operator training materials. I am often astounded by agencies and companies that do not even allow their drivers to retain copies of these materials. More commonly when questioned about it, many drivers given these materials no longer have them, do not know where they are, or have not glanced at them for years. It is not a mere cliché that training has no value apart from ensuring that the trainee understands it, retains it and applies it. In the example above, the absence of the latter was obvious, and the absence of the first two elements likely.

As anyone who knows about buses and coaches well knows, they are not toys. Nor do they operate like “Guitar Hero” compared to actually mastering the instrument itself. Particularly with large buses or coaches with air brakes, the complexities are considerable, especially when certain components (rear doors are a common example) are often grossly and needlessly over-designed. While the public would be astonished to learn that even a handful of its airline pilots lack a complete mastery of every switch, control and nuance of their airplanes’ operations, lawsuit after lawsuit demonstrate that many bus and motorcoach drivers have a minimal understanding of many or most of their vehicles’ features. In the Land of Lawsuits that America has become, such failure is not merely dangerous. It is costly.

To maintain their certification, airline pilots undergo several days of rigorous retraining every year, and most good pilots study the details of their equipment and procedures diligently and regularly. It is a shame that the same is not true of most bus and coach operators whose challenges are often less daunting than those of pilots (like the need to overcome gravity or cope with turbulence), yet who experience exponentially more accidents.

Methinks that our approach to driver training leaves much to be desired. Unless some novel approach – perhaps monitoring or enforcement – were to become more fashionable, the recent trend of criminally sentencing drivers (one was recently sentenced to 60 years in prison for committing 12 HOS violations) may be our only hope for accountability. While such an approach may seem harsh (I myself would far more favor imprisoning incompetent management personnel), I cannot help thinking that the passengers,’ pedestrians’ or fellow-motorists’ rights to safety should somehow be factored into the equation more than they presently are. When they are not, and accidents occur, the only genuine winners are the victims’ attorneys.

Publications: National Bus Trader.